Here we are in November already, well past the first-year anniversary of the Panic of 2008, and any heat, not to mention action, on financial reform has been reduced to a slow saut? from a flame more suited to stir-fry. The debate on whether some companies are too big to fail has just kind of gone poof.
This should surprise no one for a number of reasons. For one, who do you think owns the Representatives and Senators that would have to craft legislation to rein in these trillion-dollar monsters? Sorry, ladies and gentlemen of Capitol Hill, but we just don’t feel like putting on the bridle today or any time soon.
For another, the financial meltdown had its 15 minutes of fame. In the entertainment world that is the U.S. in 2009, it’s time to move on. There’s Jon and Kate, Jen and John, Brangelina, etc., etc. to compete for the limited attention span of most people.
Sure, Goldman releases blowout earnings for the third quarter and outrage bubbles for a moment. But then like bubbles do, the outrage bursts. And we’re back to Jon and Kate…
I have very little faith in the ability of Congress to summon up the courage to do what is necessary in the case of those companies whose collapse might endanger the financial system; in other words, companies too big to fail.
Some enterprising capitalists might want to think about starting a business called ‘Cojones For Rent’ and seeing what kind of business they could drum up from our legislators.
Or, we could take a page from the book being written by European regulators who don’t seem to be shy about cracking the whip when necessary.
The European Commission indeed did just that last week when it forced ING to divide itself in half. ING is a worldwide banking and insurance giant. Its properties are well-known and in the U.S. at least, its insurance units are well-respected.
The problem is that ING sank a ton of funds into investments that went south, including bad mortgages, and had to go to the Dutch government for a 10 billion euro bailout and guarantees for toxic mortgage assets that were in the range of 20 billion euros. This year that particular bird came home to roost, with the EU demanding that ING get smaller and divest itself of some operations in order to repay the loan.
The plan that ING announced is that it will sell its U.S. insurance operations and its online banking company, thus raising some of the money to start repaying the government.
The rationale behind the EU’s demand was that the company had to reduce its exposure to risk. There was also the feeling that the Dutch government had perhaps treated ING too lightly and thus gave it a competitive advantage over troubled companies whose governments did not treat them quite so well.
Contrast that with the kid-glove treatment that has been accorded to Goldman, Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, among others. They repaid the TARP funds to the U.S. government and now it’s back to business as usual. In fact, business is better than ever since everybody now knows the government won’t let these companies go down.
I know we hate to think that Europe has anything to offer us or can do anything better than we can. But considering what they’ve done in regard to ING, I think it’s worth inquiring whether the EU has some cojones for rent.